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Review: The Guilty

September 24, 2021

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

Twenty years after the release of his breakout film Training Day, director Antoine Fuqua has crafted a different type of cop thriller in The Guilty, a Netflix film that is being given a short theatrical run before its streaming release.

The film is actually a remake of director Gustav Möller’s 2018 Danish thriller of the same name, which has been Americanized by screenwriter Nic Pizzolatto, who sets this version amidst the blazing forest fires in California (which are shown in an opening helicopter shot). But the basic plot remains the same.

Joe Baylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a short-tempered police officer who has been put on desk duty, and is working the night shift answering calls in a 911 dispatch centre. When we first see him in the film, he is coughing over the sink having an asthma attack, fumbling to take a puff of his ventolin inhaler, which he clutches in his hand throughout the film like a stress ball. The stress of the job is getting to him, but there is also something else going on in his life that will be revealed as the story goes on.

The night takes a turn for the worse when he answers a call from a frantic woman (Riley Keough), who has been abducted and is trapped a van travelling down the highway. She acts as if she is speaking to her young daughter, as a man’s voice in the background tells her to hang up, and Joe tries to keep her on the line long enough to get information. Joe starts playing detective over the phone to piece together what is going on, putting in calls to hurried highway patrol officers who are busy dealing with the wildfires, and calling in favours from other officers.

Gyllenhaal is the only person we see onscreen for much of the film’s running time, and it’s a pretty raw performance. The camera often lingers in closeups on his face, as he mainly acts off of voices on the phone, with his character spending most of the film sitting at a desk in front of computer screens. It’s an interesting acting exercise for Gyllenhaal, who is instantly compelling as a bleary-eyed 911 dispatcher working the night shift, while also portraying the character arc of an officer coming to terms with his own moral failings and desperately trying to rectify them.

Like in the original, Fuqua keeps the story mostly contained to a single location and, more specifically, locked in on Joe’s perspective, allowing us to experience every emotion and twist in the story alongside him. When new details emerge, we are learning them with him over the phone. It’s an interesting sort of theatre of the mind effect, with the film relying mainly on audio and our perceptions of the situation with the limited information we are given to keep us engaged. The one downside of this approach is obviously that there is only so much visual interest they can bring to the material.

But cinematographer Maz Makhani shoots the film with a sort of glossy coldness that is appropriate, offering many insert shots of Joe’s earpiece, the light above the desk signifying when a caller has hung up, and some closeups on the computer screen for editor Jason Ballantine to quickly cut between. The confined setting also makes it an ideal film for Netflix, as well as an ideal project to have been shot during the pandemic, with Gyllenhaal mostly acting alone on set to voices being recorded in other locations, and Fuqua able to direct him remotely from a van following a COVID scare.

While The Guilty lacks the big action of Fuqua’s other films, it’s an engaging, stripped down thriller that does a fine job putting us in the headspace of its main character. At the centre of it all is Gyllenhaal, who serves as a powerful conduit for the audience, the camera allowing us to intimately see every flash of anger, panic, relief and resignation that flashes across his face over the course of the film.

The Guilty is being released in select theatres across Canada this, and will be available to stream on Netflix as of October 1st.

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